Humans of CPS (10/18): Profesora Jilynnette Centeno
Updated: Oct 22
Profesora Jilynnette Centeno, Spanish Teacher (Second Row) – Interview Conducted by Celia Lehmann Duke and Nora Wagner
Friday October 16, 2020: It is 3:35 pm – The weekend is moments away! The sun is shining (honestly, it’s a little too bright, and a little too hot), and the birds are chirping (we think- we were actually inside so, upon reflection, we have realized that we can’t really attest to that). The mood is light, the backgrounds are top-notch (flowers!), and the Human of CPS makes small talk as we anticipate the year’s eighth interview. I click record. “Welcome, Profesora Jilynnette Centeno.” The interview has begun…
Celia: Where did you grow up, and how do you think it affected the person you are today?
Profesora Jilynnette Centeno: I grew up in Puerto Rico, in the south western part of the island. It was a very small town, very close to the beach. Geographically, it’s a town that has what we call ‘two faces.’ Half of the town is one the coast, and on the other half is on the mountains. I’m from the coastal area, so my house was overlooking the mountains. While growing up, that seemed really insignificant, but once I left and came back, I was like: Wow…I have this amazing view, which I never really appreciated. My small town did not offer much in terms of activities, and that has, thankfully, changed over the course of years. Once I left to complete my undergraduate studies in the city, I had a different world and was able to interact with people around my age with similar interests from literature, art, to politics.
On other notes, Puerto Rico is a very ethnically diverse island, which is true to The Caribbean in general. There are people with ethnic roots from around the world, Hispanic and non-Hispanic. So, living among diversity has been something normal to me. People are very relaxed, and kind-hearted. They also have a very positive attitude when facing any hardships of life and are helpful with everyone, even strangers. I feel confident saying that my resilience is a cultural heritage. Historically, we have gone through so much, from natural to political disasters.
Nora: What are some interesting hobbies that you have outside of teaching?
Profesora Jilynnette Centeno: I love doing watercolor. That’s something I started doing by myself. Everything I know is self-taught. I started watercolor as a way to relax. I also love cooking and baking. I’m always trying out a new recipe, something new in the kitchen. I do a lot of sourdough, so I do things like sourdough croissants, sourdough this, sourdough that. Just making everything sourdough. Let’s see… I enjoy reading. I love reading about food, food justice, food history, and good ways to not waste any food. That’s one of my interests. What else… I love hiking. I love doing yoga, except when it’s hot (like right now). I used to do ceramics, but with Covid, I feel like it’s very risky to go to a studio. But I used to have a space in a ceramics studio in North Berkeley. That’s something I’m looking forward to, when this is all over.
Celia: Why did you decide to become a teacher? Were there any specific role models that motivated you to?
Profesora Jilynnette Centeno: This is something I don’t remember myself, but my mom loves repeating this story. She says that when I was in first grade, a girl around my age from my grandma’s neighborhood would come and play with me. That girl didn’t pass first grade, so somehow, I decided that I was going to help her. Whenever she would come over to play, I would first ask her, “Okay, did you do your homework?” If she said no, I would make her do the homework before playing! Obviously, that girl stopped being my friend, and no longer wanted to come over and play with me. Who wants to come to “play,” and be put to do homework? I think that shows that I loved teaching from a very young age.
I had the experience to teach and tutor when I went to the University of Puerto Rico. I studied languages and literature. Students would come from abroad, who were learning Spanish, and I would help them, and be their tutor to learn Spanish. It made me want to teach Spanish even more. I already had known that I wanted to teach Spanish, but I hadn’t realized that I wanted to teach Spanish as a foreign language. That experience helped to shape that idea. When I finished my studies, I went to Williams College, as an internship, to be a Spanish teaching assistant. From there, I became a graduate student. I got even more experience teaching at UC Berkeley, and after that, I went to other places, like Saint Mary’s, to teach Spanish as a foreign language. I guess that means I’ve always been a teacher.
My foreign language classes, and my professors, were mostly amazing. I always keep them in mind. There was one particular professor, that was a role model, in the sense of what not to do. He was the worst teacher I have ever had in my life. He made me feel really insignificant, and unable to do things. I decided that this was exactly what I didn’t want to do, whom I don’t want to be in the classroom. I have that teacher in my mind, just to remind me that I don’t want to make any student feel that they’re not able to do something. I want them to feel the opposite, like they’re empowered, and capable to do anything they want. Sometimes people focus on the positives of people, but that negativity that we sometimes receive from others, can be a role model of what not to do.
Nora: How has being bilingual shaped your life?
Profesora Jilynnette Centeno: Learning another language is not only about grammar or vocabulary words. You learn more than just the language. You learn to see the world in another perspective. Something I like discussing in my class is the concepts of products, practices and perspectives, because I want my students to understand why things are the way they are. Culture is something very complex, and each culture has its own way of seeing the world. Knowing these perspectives feels very fundamental to be tolerant to others, in my opinion. When you really learn another language, you also learn to be more accepting to other peoples’ differences.
Celia: Do you have a favorite area of teaching in Spanish class? For example, grammar, or history, or culture?
Profesora Jilynnette Centeno: I love grammar, but I don’t really like having a focus on it, because a lot of students don’t really like linguistics, and it’s more fun to be able to express yourself, and talk about your interests with others. I try and teach grammar in context. For instance with a story, or with something else in the background. What I find here is that students are really eager to have fundamental, and extremely important conversations. For example, with Spanish III, we have been talking about changes in education, and womens’ revolution. Those are very deep conversations that I didn’t experience in other schools before. It’s been a wonderful experience to be able to do that here.
I love doing things that interconnect, and that aren’t just focused on one thing. So, conversations about culture, and expanding the perspectives of different cultures.
Nora: We noticed that you reviewed two books for the faculty reading list, Dominicana by Angie Cruz, and Don’t Ask Where I’m From, by Jennifer de Léon. What really resonated with you about those books?
Profesora Jilynnette Centeno: Over the summer a friend and I decided to read some books together. These were two of them. We’re both Puerto Rican, so we were trying to find Latinx writers, who had stories from their experiences in the United States. While we were raised in Puerto Rico, we now live in the United States, so we want to be aware of the Latinx voices here.
With Dominicana…wow, it was a very intense book. This teenager moves from the countryside of the Dominican Republic to NYC, in a time where there were a lot of protests happening, and she doesn’t understand what is happening around her. In the beginning, she couldn’t even say one word in English. She had to take language lessons, hiding it from her husband, to be able to start making sense of her surroundings. What I like about her, is that while she was at risk with this man, she decided to do things behind his back, to be able to grow on her own. For me, something that felt connected, was that when I came here for the first time, I couldn’t say much in English. I was “supposed” to already know English, because I come from Puerto Rico and as a colony we are “supposed” to know it, but we don’t really learn it. So, when I came, I just knew very, very basic things. I see that in her, the same way, only able to say very basic things, but not giving up, being resilient, opening doors for herself.
In terms of Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, I did not know the writer before. I found out about the book when I read some recommendations from Elizabeth Acevedo (Clap When You Land). The title caught my attention. It is a question I am often asked, and many others with an accent. Personally, I don’t get offended, but I know other Latinxs do, when they’re told, “Oh! You have an accent. Where are you from?” I actually don’t mind, because I want to say where I’m from. The girl in the story is always reflecting on why she is being asked where she is from, what it means to be asked that question, and I think it is an important conversation to have. The book is also very relevant right now, as it discusses the story of immigrants, first generations, the wall and Trump (there’s a whole part about that and it’s heartbreaking). I do not share many of the stories here, because we all have different experiences, although they are similar, but I think it is important to be aware of these stories, acknowledge those differences, and learn from them. I really recommend this book out of all the books I read this summer.